Bringing Science To Midtown Streets

The street life mingles with the artwork in Like There Is No Tomorrow


Connecting Science and Art

For so many people, science is a detached subject from daily life. It exists somewhere far off, in a prototypical laboratory, experiments being ran by people wearing white coats and gloves. It is a concept that stays in the background of most peoples’ view of the world, and they may not consider how much their normal behaviors may indeed have an impact on the ecological world. The lack of connection between running errands and biology is only a matter of perspective, because at the end of the day, all organisms are co-inhabitants of the same planet. The depths of the ocean are not as far removed from our actions as one may think, and art can bring humanistic depth to scientific concepts, illustrating just how linked we are to the living things around us. With big topics, sometimes it takes more than just reading them to understand, you also must experience them.

Luckily, there are a few intrinsically creative people in the world, able to intertwine the rigors of research with an approachable, artistic viewpoint. Dr. Lina Dib, an artist and professor at Rice University, recently collaborated with Dr. Adrienne Correa, a marine biologist also at Rice, to bring a large art installation titled ‘Like There Is No Tomorrow’ to the streets of Midtown. Dib tapped local programmer Taylor Knapps to implement the interactive design for the piece. Knapps has had standout pieces at massive venues like Day for Night and SXSW, and for this collaboration, he ingeniously repurposed some Xbox Kinects to capture the motion of the streets. The electronic logistics that he pieced together to seamlessly sew the piece into a street-facing window wall were as much of an art as the projections streaming across the panes. The trio were kind enough to send pictures of the event, seen below.

Viewers interact with the installment

Like There Is No Tomorrow

If you happened to walk down Main Street in October, past Tacos-a-Go-Go and Double Trouble, you might have seen your ghostly silhouette powdering the face of an anemone. All along the walls of Main Street Projects, the 10-foot windows were a panoramic glide over the reefs of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Fish lazily slip by as radiant corals reach out to touch you, and you are completely immersed in the calm depths of a reef embankment. The footage being projected was carefully collected by marine researchers like Dr. Correa and many others like her, and the installment itself was commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists. These groups sought to educate people on the grim state of the general reef population and to help people realize their impact, as well as their kinship, to the environment around them.

A video highlighting the making of the installation, including sounds of the Flower Garden Banks reef itself

As you see in the video, when an object moves past the screen their motion is captured and the images on the screen are whited out in their shape. This relationship is a reflection of a hotbed topic today called coral bleaching, where reefs transition from a rainbow of beautiful hues to an ashy white as they die. Coral bleaching is a devastating phenomenon that is largely due to human actions like pollution, overfishing, increased carbon emissions, and just physically pulverizing them with anchor dragging. Coral reefs were built over the course of centuries, very slowly working their way from single polyps that fit in your hand to a vast underwater jungle, where thousands of species co-exist and thrive. However, they are very sensitive, changing their structure and coral types throughout the oceans existence to reflect what the world is like around them. In harsher eras of the planet’s history, coral have been tougher than todays relatively sensitive species, but the sheer beauty and wild variations of both the reefs and the inhabitants are an anomaly in history that we are extremely lucky to be able to have. Sadly, the way things are headed, we likely will not have them much longer. By 2030, up to 90% of reefs will be threatened. By 2050, our oceans may be depleted altogether. There are multitudes of studies that altogether equal hundreds of thousands of hours of observation and research by legions of scientists who care about the world we live in, and all of the respectable data makes the reason very clear: the behavior of humans has consequences that are killing the coral reefs (among with pretty much everything else, but I’ll save that for another article). Although the naysayers may shout the opposite from the rooftops, please honor the time and loving care that so many people have put into their work and educate yourself with the studies they have produced.

Audience members interact with specimens at a workshop hosted by Dib and Correa

What is Coral Bleaching?

Coral is one half of a symbiotic relationship, with the other half being this tiny organism called zooxanthellae. Thousands of zooxanthellae occupy the inside of a coral, using the larger body as a hotel for shelter while they help the coral by breaking down sturdy nutritional chemicals into ones that the coral can use. When two organisms work closely as a team so that both benefit, this is symbiosis. Together, the two can thrive by covering their partners weakness. Sadly, there are struggles with being an aquatic organism that leave you at the mercy of the water you spend your entire life in. Oceans are a giant reservoir of things such as heat, carbon, and numerous other chemicals we are putting into the air. Generally, these levels are regulated by cycles of the ocean itself and the creatures that inhabit it. Algae and other aquatic plants are able to transition the carbon dioxide to oxygen, the currents move heat energy around and release it into the atmosphere, and other volatile elements are fixed into less harmful states by helpful bacteria. When these cycles get out of sync, these things remain in the water and organisms have nowhere to escape to, as the water is their life.

I’ll save the preaching and just state that now things are different. The oceans have been overloaded with more heat, carbon, ammonia, and pollutants than they can handle. The cycling is no longer able to convert the plethora of poisons, and even if heat is released, it cannot exit the atmosphere and ends up coming right back down. Our little friends the zooxanthellae are now living in an environment that is hotter, more acidic, and less bountiful than it has been and anyone who has owned a fish can tell you that these critical factors can be deadly to an aquatic organism. So the zooxanthella die, unable to cope with the Mad Max dystopian wasteland around them, and so does the arm in arm teamwork they had with the coral. The zooxanthella are what give the coral not only the nutrients that they survive off of, but also contribute to the dynamic ranges of colors we see. With the death of the symbiosis, our corals go grey and starve. Their bodies begin to calcify, turning from an elaborate painting of life into a hardened sculpture of what stood there before. This is coral bleaching. The effects do not end here, as many communities around the world rely on coastal reefs as sources of food and economy. Without the coral to shelter and feed the multitudes of fish, bacteria, and other organisms, as well as set the stage for their entire ecosystem, the whole set comes crashing down. This leads to starvation for people who know no other way of life. We are much more connected to the ocean floors than our busy lives have time to remind us. If the tone sounds apocalyptic and dramatic to you, then please let me assure you that I am not exaggerating.

A woman's figure paints the coral reef as she passes

What Can We Do?

We can educate ourselves. Dr. Dib and her collaborators have taken the message from a boring research study and turned it into an experience. When your form casts a white form on the oceanic images, let it serve as a reminder that you are there as well, you are an inhabitant of the earth. The images you see in the video are not far off, they are right there in the Gulf, and are doing surprisingly well. The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary have thriving fields of reefs, and we are lucky enough to be so close. We can also vote. This is a crucial time point in human history. We have never before had the population and the technology to impact the earth in this magnitude, so there is no history to learn lessons from. Instead, we must tread carefully and think out every detail to be sure of our next step. If we do not learn to co-exist and care for the earth around us, then it may not be the same one our kids grow up in. When you vote on November 6th, do your due diligence and cast votes for those who care about the future of our planet, because I kinda like living on Earth, and I imagine most of you do too.

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